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Discovering Life After Birth

Life After Birth:
What Even Your Friends Won’t Tell You About Motherhood

by Kate Figes with Jean Zimmerman
New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1998

Review by MaryKate Newcomb

I went to the library on a whim, hoping to find a book on tape that would break the monotony of marathon nursing sessions with my four-month-old, some book that wasn’t about, say, babies dying, politics, or dieting. I found an audio version of Bridget Jones’s Diary, and wheeled the stroller through the stacks while the baby slept. Tucked in a back corner were about fifty books on pregnancy and childcare.

Most of the childcare books I’d read so far offered paternalistic advice and warnings about everything from changing the cat litter to the staggering question, “Does every woman need an enema?” (Your Pregnancy Week by Week). It’s not a surprise that they offered little comfort, and in fact, made me feel worse. I still felt like a train wreck months after the “magical” date of six weeks post-partum.

Then I pulled Life After Birth: What Even Your Friends Won’t Tell You About Motherhood by Kate Figes (with Jean Zimmerman) from the shelf. I looked through the table of contents: Health After Birth, Adjusting to Motherhood, Emotions, Exhaustion, Working and the “Good” Mother, Relations with the Father, Friends and the Outside World, Sex and Sensuality, Family Life. Skimming the introduction, I found this: “Isn’t post-partum depression really post-partum experience?” I went home with more hope than I had had in weeks, and was not disappointed.

Life After Birth addresses every aspect of a woman’s life that changes with the birth of a child (in a word: everything). Figes uses interviews with new mothers, statistical data, extensive historical accounts, and personal experiences to honestly describe the upheaval women experience when they become mothers.

Nearly everything in the book was encouraging to read. The conspiracy of silence surrounding those first few months left me feeling like I was the only one facing a minefield of identity crisis, confusion, out-of-control emotions, exhaustion, lasting physical pain, and sometimes mourning for my former life. Seeing everything I’d been going through in print was an enormous relief; even better, Figes articulates what I was just too tired to explain in my own words (very helpful in the “Relations with the Father” department).

The authors also include a guide to post-partum health problems in the back of the book, dealing extensively with post-partum depression in an earlier chapter. Many chronic illnesses in new mothers go untreated, because symptoms are mistaken for common complaints of sleep-deprived parents. “Well, you just had a baby” can answer for a lot of problems, but sometimes there is more to the story. This resource helps separate the assumptions from the reality.

Figes explodes the myth that a woman should be able to quickly bounce back to her pre-baby figure, attitude, work schedule, and sex life. They provide great evidence to the contrary, but with the sobering reality is hope: life will be chaotic for a while, but a new type of normalcy will finally descend. And while the chaos is happening, Figes says, a new mother needs to be pampered and cherished, just as much as the new baby in her life. A new mother needs to be affirmed in the momentous accomplishment of birth: no matter how the baby came out, she has gone through a powerful rite of passage. Our culture, and even many mothers, have largely forgotten these truths, sending vulnerable women underground to battle their shock, guilt, and lingering pain alone.

One of the best things about Life After Birth is the clarity it gives to such a confusing time. Things instantly change when a woman gives birth, and I was taught to expect that. But how things change took me completely by surprise: the intensity of emotions, unexpected strains in my marriage, a new connection with in-laws, the unintended disconnect from friends without children. All of these new circumstances require time and solitude to process, two luxuries new mothers rarely have. It is a blessing, then, to find a resource like Life After Birth, to make the adjustment to motherhood less painful.

mmo : October 2004

MaryKate Newcomb is an artist, teacher, Smurf collector, and new mother. She lives in Baltimore, Maryland, with her husband Dorian and her son Atticus.
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